1 Samuel 16:7b
“For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."

As we learn to read and understand scripture, one of the disciplines that can be very important to practice is separating out what the scripture says and what our current culture, whether religious or not, has come to understand that scripture to mean.

How does that relate to the text I’ve started with? Well, I’ll ask a very simple question, Is the passage I’ve quoted an imperative, or an indicative? In other words, is it giving us a command, or is it merely describing reality as it is?

I think that, culturally speaking, many read the concept described above, and they take it as some kind of command. As it states, God looks at the heart, therefore he does not make errors in judgment based on outward appearance. Therefore, in our minds, we finish the sentence and say that we ought to try to be like God. We should look at the heart as well. In one sense, it makes perfect sense to read the verse this way and take some kind of command or imperative from it. In another sense, this is profoundly wrong and can lead to incredibly damaging ways of thinking.

One reason we might take this passage as a command is because, in context, God is telling Samuel not to look at the outward appearance, but listen as God reveals his choice of who should be the next king. It literally says it in the sentence before this one “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.’”

However, what we often forget, is that you and I don’t exactly have these kinds of interactions with God every day. We don’t hear his audible voice coming down from heaven, telling us to base our views of others on the states of their hearts as God reveals them to us moment by moment.

In day to day life, if we look at this second half of 1 Samuel 16:7 and put it in our context, we really have no way of applying it as anything other than a basic description of typical human experience. We cannot see hearts. God can. We will never be like God in this way. Period.

There is a certain way we might talk about looking at the heart rather than the outward appearance that may be valid. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we often say. Usually what we are talking about is the fact that you don’t really know someone based on first impressions. At first we might find someone quiet and aloof, only to find that they can be incredibly engaging and loyal friends once we get to know them. Someone may be stunningly attractive at first, but then have profound character flaws the more we spend time with them.

However, in the end we must acknowledge that even after a lifelong friendship with someone we meet, or after a lifetime of relationship with a close family member, we have never and will never truly see into a human heart. For us, every word and every deed is actually an outward appearance. Appearances we use to draw finite conclusions as human beings.

Why is this important to point out? This has been on my mind because I can think of many ways I’ve seen the “judge people by their hearts and not appearances” idea get abused and misused. Often times, when people say “don’t judge so and so based on appearances,” they’re not merely pointing out the truth that good looks aren’t everything. Often what they mean is “don’t judge so and so based on their words, deeds, or life choices.” In other words, what they’re saying is, “yes, I heard what they said, I saw what they did, but I know what was truly in their heart at the time. You don’t. So don’t judge.” People often speak this way to defend themselves as well. “I know what I did, but you don’t know my heart.”

How many countless sinful lifestyles have been defended with zero requirement of repentance with this kind of reasoning? Scripture simply does not separate out our hearts and our words and our actions in this way. Sinful actions or words don’t flow from a right heart attitude.

As I said before, there is a limited sense in which we might rightly speak this way. Perhaps we will defend someone because their words or actions could have different motives than one might first perceive. Where once some action looked sinful, it takes on a whole new meaning when rightly understood. Or perhaps someone did sin, but we are not aware of their repentance afterwards. Perhaps there were conversations we were not invited to, but they did in fact happen. These misunderstandings are not what I’m talking about here.

I’ve often seen, for example, parents whose children have openly rejected Christ with their mouth and have entered lifestyles of unrepentant sin. Yet those parents claim to know the hidden depths of their childrens’ hearts, such that the words and actions that are right in front of them, simply can’t mean what they clearly do mean.

I’ve heard and observed stories of men or women who wish to marry someone from a different faith, contrary to scripture’s teaching. They do it out of a confidence that this person’s “heart” is in the right place. Their romantic interest’s mouth may reject Christ, they’re actions may be done out of worship to a different god or no god at all. Yet, somehow they believe they can see through all of these appearances (appearances that God in fact encourages us to examine) into the hidden corners of another human heart.

When we reason this way, we are not being “Godly,” we are trying to be God.

Ultimately, we as humans are not being prideful or “judgmental” in a negative sense when we rely on outward appearances in this way. In reality we are being humble and acknowledging our limitations as human beings. While we should be patient before reaching conclusions and take in as much information as possible about another person’s words and deeds, these words and deeds and “outward appearances” are all we will ever have. Unless the heavens open and God tells us otherwise.

I believe this understanding really clarifies difficult passages like James chapter 2. This chapter has often been abused and used to teach that we are justified (declared righteous) by God, on the basis of our works on top of our faith. Even though Paul clearly teaches that we are justified by faith apart from works of the law. For example James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24).

This actually makes perfect sense when we see the justification James is talking about is a justification before human beings, not before God. God sees our hearts. He immediately knows at the moment he grants us repentance and faith that our faith is real. All this before a single good work flows out of us. Christ is our righteousness by faith. We cannot add to what he has done in God’s sight.

However, I can confess my faith to another human being a thousand times, but if it does not demonstrate itself in my works, according to James, then how can anyone know if my confession is based in reality? All we are capable of as human beings is discerning based on the outward appearance of someone’s confession, coupled with faith working through love. It is God’s place and only God’s place to look at the heart.